President Benigno Aquino III made an egregious mistake two weeks ago when he appointed a recently retired police general, Lina Castillo Sarmiento, to chair the Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board. He has since defended the appointment, offering a cluster of reasons why Sarmiento was right for the job. Sarmiento has also asked her critics to give her a chance at proving them wrong. But the appointment remains a mistake. If the President is loath to change his mind, it is up to Sarmiento to provide the urgent, necessary remedy: She should resign.
The appointment is wrong on several levels.
First, the landmark measure providing for reparation and recognition of the martial law regime’s many human rights victims, Republic Act No. 10368, became law last year; it took Malacañang 12 months to form the claims board. Given the lateness of the hour, the President owed it to the victims and their families to do everything right, not to present them with yet another problem.
Second, placing a career official from the Philippine National Police (formerly the Philippine Constabulary/Integrated National Police) at the head of the claims board sends the wrong signals, to both victim and victimizer. The PC/INP was notorious for human rights abuses. Even if Sarmiento can claim, as she has already claimed, that she has never been accused of any human rights violation throughout her career, the simple fact is she achieved career success in an institution with a record of human rights violations.
Third, and most important: RA 10368 lists four specific qualifications that members of the claims board should possess, and Sarmiento fails the most crucial one. Section 8 reads: “There is hereby created an independent and quasi-judicial body to be known as the Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board … It shall be composed of nine (9) members, who shall possess the following qualifications …. (b) Must have a deep and thorough understanding and knowledge of human rights and involvement in efforts against human rights violations committed during the regime of former President Ferdinand E. Marcos.”
That second phrase says it all: Sarmiento, who joined the police force in 1980, at the height (or the depths) of military rule, cannot claim “involvement in efforts against human rights violations” committed at that time. She may have risen to the rank of director, the equivalent of major general, and headed the PNP Human Rights Affairs Office late in her career, but there is no showing that, during the Marcos years, when she was still new in the force, she was fighting back against human rights violations.
We wish to be clear: We are not suggesting that Sarmiento was a violator, only that there is no evidence that she was involved in “efforts against” human rights violations then.
If there were evidence, the President would surely have adverted to it. But in defending Sarmiento’s appointment, he offered only a curious cocktail of reasons: she had the “necessary physical ability to be able to complete the job in two years,” the maturity “to fend off those who would want to sabotage what this law intends to do,” the experience of handling human rights issues and the support of officials of the Department of Justice and the Commission on Human Rights. “So, she has the skill, she has the physical energy, she has the drive, she has the right direction to be able to accomplish the job in two years or less,” he said. Maybe, but she still does not meet the requirement clearly spelled out in Section 8 (b).
Other members of the board have a better claim to the chairmanship under the President’s criteria; he could have named former Constitutional Commissioner Jose Luis Martin Gascon, for instance, and there would have been no controversy. This suggests that perhaps the real reason the President named Sarmiento lies in that notion of sabotage: that she could “fend off those who would want to sabotage what this law intends to do.”
But who is the President referring to? There were fears heard during the long struggle to pass the law that victims associated with or sympathetic to the National Democratic Front would use the reparation money to suspicious ends. This seems to us unlikely; it also raises the question of presidential limits: Why does the President have a say in how the money will be used? But all these complications obscure the new fact: The controversy over Sarmiento’s appointment amounts to a kind of sabotage, too.
If Sarmiento has the victims’ interest at heart, she should do the honorable thing and resign.
“Pres. Noynoy Aquino’s lame defense of the appointment of Gen. Lina Sarmiento as head of the martial law claims board is as lame as his understanding of the very essence of the law that he is supposed to implement. It is very clear in the letter of the law that the board members should possess known probity, competence, integrity, deep and thorough understanding & knowledge of human rights and involvement in efforts vs Martial Law human rights violations. Nowhere in his statement defending Sarmiento reflect such adherence to the law.”
“Aquino installed a police general, from the dreaded institution-purveyors of human rights violations, whose “experience” in tackling human rights issues is highly questionable. As head of the PNP Human Rights Affairs Office, she dismissed calls for investigation on cases of rights abuses of the military and police which were raised by the international community during the Arroyo administration. In the 2013 AFP-MNLF Zamboanga City stand-off, she was eerily silent on the reported torture and other human rights violations committed against civilians and suspected MNLF members. If her record is as muddied as her concept of human rights, what of Sarmiento’s “experience” then has Aquino considered?”
“If Aquino is worried about “fending of those who want to sabotage the law” as he says, he should just look at the mirror. By appointing Sarmiento, Aquino appears as the primary saboteur of the intent of the law to provide justice and reparations to Martial Law victims.”
Cristina Palabay secretary general
MANILA, Philippines—As the Aquino administration celebrated the 28th anniversary of the Edsa People Power Revolution that toppled the Marcos dictatorship, victims of martial law went to the Supreme Court on Tuesday to stop a retired police director from chairing the board that would determine compensation for victims of the Marcos regime.
Former Bayan Muna Rep. Satur Ocampo was among those who filed a petition for certiorari, prohibition and injunction as well as an application for a temporary restraining order against Lina Sarmiento, whom President Aquino named chair of the Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board.
Named respondents in the petition were Aquino, who was accused of committing grave abuse of discretion when he appointed Sarmiento, former chief of the Philippine National Police Community Relations Group under the government’s counterinsurgency program and head of the PNP Human Rights Affairs Office (HRAO) before her new appointment.
Ocampo and five other petitioners told the high court that they were aghast that Aquino had appointed a police general to head the claims board.
They said Sarmiento’s appointment was “illegal” and should be declared void as she failed to meet the minimum qualifications for a board member set by Republic Act No. 10368, or the Human Rights Victims’ Reparation and Recognition Act of 2013.
In their petition, they said Sarmiento did not meet the requirements that she “must be of known probity, competence and integrity (Section 8a); must have a deep and thorough understanding and knowledge of human rights violations committed during the regime of former President Marcos (8b); and must have a clear and adequate understanding and commitment to human rights protection, promotion and advocacy.”
The petitioners said the President “may argue that respondent Sarmiento has a track record as a member and officer of the PNP but it cannot be denied that she lacks the mandated qualifications set forth under the law, and the institution she represents lacks the credibility and integrity to deliver justice to human rights victims.”
The petitioners also said that when Sarmiento was HRAO chief, she “became part of the machinery, which ‘attempted to deodorize the stench of the internationally condemned cases of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances.’”
One case Sarmiento handled was about farmer Renante Romagus who survived abduction and torture. He was stabbed and left for dead in December 2007 in Compostela Valley province, Ocampo et al. said.
They said Sarmiento dismissed calls for investigations of Romagus’ case “as she lamely but callously blamed instead the victims’ inability to identify his perpetrators.”
They also said Sarmiento was a member of Task Force Usig, created by the Arroyo administration which investigated extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances but which they pointed out had failed to do its job.
The petitioners noted that there was nothing on public record to show that Sarmiento was involved in any effort against atrocities during the Marcos dictatorship.
“If at all, she was a silent, passive, if not acquiescent cog in the security apparatus of the repressive dictatorship,” they said.
Ocampo et al. said their petition was not a question of not only whether Sarmiento was qualified under the law to assume such post but also of whether the President’s act of approving her appointment “contravenes the very essence of the law he is supposed to implement.”
And they said the answer to both questions was “in the negative.”
“Therefore, the illegal and unjustifiable appointment by no less than respondent Aquino, the very person who signed the law and a son of supposed icons of Philippine democracy, of a former police general representative of or coming from an institution that has perpetrated gross human rights violations during the Marcos regime—and even up to the present—negates and renders nugatory the very purpose for which the law was enacted,” they said.
The petitioners said the high court should declare Sarmiento’s appointment null and void because the President had committed grave abuse of discretion.
“By appointing a former police general to head the human rights board, the President is practically exonerating the entire system that perpetrated the abuses, justified their occurrence and concealed them with a veneer of impunity,” they said.
Aside from Ocampo, the other petitioners were Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares, Bayan chair Carolina Araullo, and Trinidad Repuno, Tita Lubi and Josephine Dongail—members of Samahan ng Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto.
Former police director Lina Sarmiento, the first woman to hold a two-star rank in the Philippine National Police (PNP), has been appointed head of the Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board.
The board oversees the distribution of P10 billion in compensation to victims of military abuse during President Marcos’ martial law regime.
Sarmiento’s resumé says she was former director of the PNP Human Rights Affairs Office.
As someone often approached by people victimized by abusive policemen, I should have been aware of such an office.
I knew Sarmiento headed the Police Security and Protection Group which assigns bodyguards to very important persons or VIPs.
I never heard her defending the human rights of civilians, much more heading an office within the PNP that protects the rights of civilians.
No kidding, is there really such an office?
Mr. Speaker, my dear colleagues;
Today, I rise on a personal and collective privilege to speak on a very important issue that has earned the ire of many human rights victims of the Martial Law regime: President Aquino’s February 13 appointment of a former police general as chair of the Human Rights Victims’ Claims Board.
Mr. Speaker, the said appointment is an insensitive act on the part of President Aquino — even a dishonor to the memory and sacrifices made by the victims of Martial Law.
Mr. Speaker, my dear colleagues: the Martial Law victims waited for nearly three (3) decades after the late dictator was ousted before Republic Act No. 10368 or the Human Rights Reparations and Recognition Act was passed into law last year. They were made to wait again for another year before Pres. Aquino finally constituted the Claims Board.
However, other than it was an insult to the victims, the appointment of Police General Lina Castillo-Sarmiento as chair of the claims board is also a highly questionable act.
Mr. Speaker, in Section 8 of RA 10368, the qualifications of the nine (9) member-claims board are the following:
- (a) Must be of known probity, competence and integrity;
- (b) Must have a deep and thorough understanding and knowledge of human rights and involvement in efforts against human rights violations committed during the regime of former President Ferdinand E. Marcos;
- (c) At least three (3) of them must be members of the Philippine Bar who have been engaged in the practice of law for at least ten (10) years; and
- (d) Must have a clear and adequate understanding and commitment to human rights protection, promotion and advocacy. Indeed, what really was the involvement of Director Sarmiento in preventing human rights violations during the Martial Law regime? Mr. Speaker, President Aquino cannot feign ignorance of the requirements of the very law that he signed last year.
Callously, instead of appointing as head of the claims’ board a victim or even a representative of the victims, Pres. Aquino choose to give this rare distinction to a representative of the very institution – the Philippine Constabulary, the forerunner of the PNP — that unleashed, along with the AFP, the most brutal human rights violations during the Marcos dictatorship.
During the previous Arroyo administration, Director Sarmiento was one of its apologistsasthe former Director of the PNP Human Rights Affairs Office (HRAO).
As HRAO chief, she merely swept under the rug charges of human rights violations committed by PNP officers and personnel. She was part of the “denial machine” that attempted to deodorize the stench of the internationally condemned cases of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances under the Arroyo administration. One such case in the past was the manner by which she handled the investigation involving the case of 32-year-old Renante Romagus, a farmer, who had survived from his ordeal after he was forcibly abducted, tortured, held in captivity, repeatedly stabbed and left for dead last December 12, 2007 in Compostela Valley Province, in Mindanao.
According to the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), Director Sarmiento, as head of PNP HRAO, dismissed calls for investigations on Romagus case, as she lamely but callously blamed instead the victim’s inability to identify his perpetrators.
Again, we asked General Sarmiento, where were you and what did you do as head of HRAO during the height of the state of impunity involving cases of EJKs and Enforced Disappearance under the Arroyo administration?
Last year, during the AFP-MNLF Zamboanga City standoff, the only claim to fame of Director Sarmiento was her program of bringing in clowns and comedians to entertain the affected residents, but, she was very silent on the reported torture and other human rights violations committed against civilians and suspected MNLF rebels.
Yes, Mr. Speaker, even until today, the very institution that Director Sarmiento represents is associated in many more serious cases of human rights violations. For example, just last month, several PNP personnel were exposed to have been involved in maintaining a torture chamber in Laguna.
On the other hand, it is also appalling to note Mr. Speaker, distinguished colleagues, that after a year of dilly-dallying the appointment of the claims board, President Aquino even bypassed and disregarded nominees from SELDA or the Samahan ng Ex-Detainees Laban sa Detensyon at Aresto, an organization of former political prisoners and victims of Martial Law.
SELDA is one of the human rights organizations specifically recognized by RA 10368 to submit nominees to be appointed as members of the claims board.
Mr. Speaker as we closely monitor the actions of this Aquino claims board, I challenged this Chamber, which made possible the passage into law of RA 10368, not to allow President Aquino to desecrate further the said law, even as we continue to fight for justice for the victims of Martial Law and for all the victims of human rights violations.
Thank you, my dear colleagues.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker